“I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you.” Psalms 32:8, 9, NASB.
We tend to use the word ‘discipline’ in two ways. There is self-discipline, or the ordered and focused life that is effectual in its purposes. The disciplined life says yes to the right things, even when it is hard, and no to the right things, even when it is hard. The disciplined life knows its own callings, gifting, and strengths, and forsakes other pursuits in order to excel in them. The disciplined life lets others win at their callings, trusts others to excel in their areas of gifting, and focuses on its own complementary success. In fact, Jesus took great care in choosing disciples, and led them and trained them in a very unique and individual way.
The second kind of discipline is God’s discipline, or rather the discipline of another imposed upon an otherwise undisciplined person. This is a correctional action taken when an individual does not seem to be capable of self-discipline. In both cases discipline means the same thing – the focus on a higher and better goal through sometimes difficult means. If one does not or cannot discipline themselves, if they cannot bring themselves to a place of order and focus, another must impose some form of force to bring them to do so. It is the same idea, but its source is either self, or another person, or God.
Jesus’ Example of Self-Discipline
We tend to think that the spirit-led life, the life of grace and mercy, is a life of free-wheeling ‘where the wind blows’ craziness. To a certain extent it is. We see this in the life of Jesus:
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8, NKJV.
If you ever try to do a study on Jesus in terms of time management, productivity, or discipline, you will find that there is nothing there. He’s going here, going there, up praying at 4 AM unexpectedly (if He always did this, wouldn’t the disciples have known what to expect?) He would hang around and then leave town unexpectedly. The disciples never had any idea what He was going to do next. It’s almost like the defining characteristic of Jesus’ walk was its complete unpredictability from day to day. Some need came along and He turned aside; yet in every case it served as a teaching moment for the disciples, and in every case it all fit some larger purpose.
Despite the apparent chaos, there is an order, an intensity, a focus to Jesus’ way of living. He had a tremendous vision to seriously offer the kingdom of God to the nation of Israel before we see a clear shift in focus where He turns away from that and begins to focus on His disciples and building up the seed of the church. This is way beyond the scope of this chapter, but next time you read through one of the gospels watch for it, and in the middle of the craziness and the wind-blown itinerary, we see a focus and a discipline to teach certain things to certain groups and not to other groups, to heal people for a time in an area and then leave others unhealed and move on.
Look at this passage:
“Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; “and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”” Mark 10:32-34, NKJV.
This is toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and we see that the disciples were amazed, because they understood the danger, the impending calamity, that certainly awaited Him there. He knew what He needed to do, it was not pleasant, and yet the Spirit led Him, just like it led Him to the desert to be tempted, to His crucifixion. He marched ahead of them, facing up, moving surely toward His fate. On the way, as usual, He is interrupted and heals people and takes on the issues and problems and addresses the misunderstandings of the disciples. The discipline and order of the spirit led life is not one that avoids difficulty, nor is it one that avoids the messy problems of real people along the way. Peter, who was on that road with Him, and was one of the amazed ones, presses the point:
“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” 1 Peter 4:1, 2, NKJV.
ARM yourselves with the same purpose! If you are ready to suffer in the flesh, if you have it in mind to do God’s bidding no matter the cost, if you have set your face toward the place of your cross, you are ARMED, you are dangerous to the forces of evil. If you are distracted, seeking comfort and entertainment, led astray with spiritual ‘ADD’, if you are not ready to face your obvious purpose and fate, you are unarmed, harmless, aimless, wandering, and ineffectual.
It is strange, but you can always bet that the one thing you are avoiding is the one thing that is the most important thing you need to do. Once you lay that aside, once you set your mind to suffer, once you are of a mind to set your face like flint toward your Jerusalem, you are freed. It is strange as well that it is usually one thing, one simple thing, that faces you, and it is not that you lack revelation or understanding, it is that you do not want to suffer, you enjoy your aimless comfort. It is a problem of the will, not of the lack of some mystic revelation, that prevents you from being in the stream of the strong purpose of the Spirit’s leading.
Paul, the guru of grace, has much to say about all of this. One of my favorites is in his letter to Timothy:
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV.
“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer must be first to partake of the crops. Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things.” 2 Timothy 2:1-7, NKJV.
We have an agenda, a clear manifest. We are not called to cordon ourselves off from the random needs of people and the daily pressure of the unexpected, but rather we are called by the Spirit to arm ourselves with the strong purpose to take up our cross, and go forward into the amazing adventure of following Him who did the same for us. Jesus’ example of discipline under grace is broader and more free than keeping a planner perfectly with each 15 minute time slot filled in. Discipline under grace is effectual and gets to the heart of us in the most direct way. When a jazz musician plays music, instead of following an exact page of music note for note, he or she plays along with the other musicians in a freely improvised way that follows the same set of chords. This is the self-discipline of Jesus. He was a great improviser, and He knew how to follow the changes perfectly and with great creativity and originality.
Grace vs. Imposed Discipline
If we are asked BY GOD to suffer in the flesh, to ‘arm ourselves with the same purpose (1Peter 4:1)’, how does that harmonize with the operations of a God of love and grace? Are we allowing bondage and servitude and legalism in the back door through teachings on discipline? Before you go on with this, I want you to pause and let yourself really inwardly ask this question, to honestly consider it. You might pray, “Lord, if it is true that You LOVE me and have mercy and grace so strongly for me, WHY all this talk about discipline and such? Why do You make it so hard?” It is important that you truly own up to your own doubts and internal fears and anger about this, you can’t just go day by day reading trite theories about things. There is certainly a danger in teachings about God’s discipline, in that it leads to a wrong fear and a subtle underlying disbelief in His love and mercy and grace. Some people become very dejected in their faith and are constantly expecting to be punished and disciplined all the time, and expect that most of God’s dealings with them are going to be harsh and disciplinary. Let’s look at the most famous text for this subject:
“You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” Hebrews 12:4-13, NASB.
One of my sons sometimes has a bit of trouble keeping current with his school work. Recently when I called him to task, and grounded him from a number of things, he got very upset and wanted to know why I was “going Nazi” on him about it. He later went on to say that he feels that he can’t talk to me about anything any more, and he feels that I am always angry with him (we are actually quite close). From my perspective, I love him, I didn’t even raise my voice, and I seek nothing except success and healing for him. We have a tendency to overplay the harshness of our discipline, don’t we? If God reveals through our conscience that we have an area needing correction, in our immaturity we are likely to view all of His kindnesses through that lens, because it speaks most loudly. However, this discipline is far from the final message God has for us. There is a very big difference between punishment and discipline. Discipline sees weakness and failure and brings whatever measures to bear to bring strength and healing. It has nothing to do with justice or moral wrong-doing. Punishment has more to do with facing the consequences for moral wrong-doing. Here we are talking about discipline, not punishment. In the end, discipline is meant to be joyful, but not in the moment of pain. Discipline leads to peace and fruit, in the end.
In fact, the discipline of God is the surest sign of His grace. He means to keep with us, to lead us on, to take us to a point of blessing and peace, even when we ourselves resist. He is more committed to our good fortune than we ourselves are! Isn’t it true that our closest friends, the friends we trust most and have known the longest, are the ones who tell us the things we really need to hear? God is not less committed to us than our friends. Grace means God really means to bless us, to keep with us, to bring us to a place of true and lasting joy, even when we ourselves go astray and lose our heart. Discipline is one means to this end, but it is not His whole voice nor is it by any means the only thing He has to say. It is an occasional season of revelation to us when we are having trouble hearing more reasonable voices.
Discipline Under Grace
The picture that emerges is that whether discipline is self-imposed, or imposed by another, it is still a very present necessity under grace. Grace says, though you define blessing in a certain way, God has enough grace to redefine you. Even when you are set against God’s definition of blessing, and insist on a lesser definition of blessing, God’s grace will still prevail over you to your ultimate benefit. He does not cave in to your childish tantrums and strong-willed notions of what you think you want. He persists in real love and real blessing even when you completely misunderstand Him. When we begin to understand this, we begin to go along with it. We begin to arm ourselves with the purpose of suffering in the flesh. We begin to focus on the discipline that is certain to be imposed anyway. We set our face like flint to the cross at hand, knowing that beyond the pain we once feared and desperately avoided lie resurrection and joy.